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Moving Forward in a Time of Uncertainty

W. Andrew Marcus, Dean

On the evening of Presidential election, I immediately began to wonder, “What will I tell the College tomorrow?” The next morning, in front of all the CAS department heads and program directors, I proclaimed my new militancy in upholding the values and standards that define a university to me: an unfettered search for knowledge, inclusivity, and intellectual integrity and honesty—a relatively mild way of reaffirming my commitment to what I hold dear in the face of strong national headwinds. But words like that, while important statements of affirmation, do not provide a pathway for action or administrative leadership.

Since that time, I have often thought about the national climate, the challenges it poses to public higher education, and how we might plan for the future. Yet I often became stuck in my thinking because there is so much uncertainty regarding potential changes. What will change? How will it change? Who will be affected? The list of unknowns is long.

I realized, however, that my concerns fit into three broad categories: a) financial solvency and stability; b) protecting and supporting faculty, staff, and students; and c) anticipating and addressing campus and civil unrest. In the Trump era, it is not hard to imagine challenges for higher education in any of these areas.

Financial concerns include reduced PELL funding for students, loss of international student tuition, and cuts to research agency budgets. Concerns about supporting our community members range from helping people targeted by hate crimes to providing clear guidance about international travel. And campus unrest ranges from dealing with debate in the classroom that spirals out of control to large campus protests.

Organizing my concerns, however, still did not provide a mechanism for planning in this time of uncertainty. I therefore met with the Wise Heads (a six-member group made up of CAS heads nominated by their fellow heads as advisors to the dean) and CAS dean’s office leadership to ask if it would be useful to engage in “scenario planning.” I proposed that Andre Le Duc, Chief Resilience Officer and Associate Vice President of Safety and Risk Services, and his staff could lead us through this process. The Wise Heads and leadership responded with a unanimous, “Yes.”

As a result, and starting this spring, our CAS deans, the Wise Heads, and a variety of consultants will embark on a series of discussions about how we might respond to a range of events. I want to be clear; we will be outlining general processes for responding. We will not be developing detailed plans for an infinite range of specific events that we cannot even predict. To use Andre’s words, we want the planning sessions to guide us “toward solving problems and using existing systems, networks and partnerships.”

According to Andre, “the sessions will allow CAS leadership to discuss potential vulnerabilities and its capacity to address those vulnerabilities. The discussions will focus on ‘what if’ scenarios and decision-making processes—exploring ways to recognize and evolve in response to the complex system within which we operate and to seek out new opportunities even in times of crisis.”

For example, if we see a major increase in verbal or online attacks on researchers, we want to know the range of responses available to us, who should be contacted within the institution, and how to prioritize actions given a limited number of personnel and time constraints. Although my thinking along these lines has been prompted by concerns regarding the national climate, some of the scenarios we work with might be equally valuable in helping us deal with other potential risks, ranging from flu epidemics to a Cascadia quake.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will be reporting to you through the blog about the results of our scenario discussions, which is one of the ways we think about CAS. The next blog post will be from Bruce Blonigen, who will discuss the uncertainty around future finances—uncertainty that derives from statewide, national, and international actions, and not from any decision internal to the university. Later posts will address other topics. As always, I will welcome faculty and staff input on those posts and the topics we discuss.

The scenarios we consider will all reflect challenging situations, but I want to assure you that we will also be continuing—as always—to think about the many positive possibilities on the horizon. This week, for example, we are undertaking the inspiring task of evaluating the many superior proposals from faculty and departments for tenure-track faculty hires. Next week we will launch into evaluating the numerous proposals we have received for innovative online classes. And following that, we will be working with advising staff across the College to talk about ways to improve student success within our majors.

Even in this challenging time, staff and faculty creativity—and the good that comes from it—are at an all-time high. At the same time, I want you to know that we are concerned about the national climate and its impacts on higher education—and are seeking ways to act on behalf of the College when and if specific challenges arise.

Andrew Marcus
Tykeson Dean of Arts and Sciences

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